A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Friendship with Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice.  Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.

We keep God at arm’s length.  What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)?  What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)?  What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?

We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God.  We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God.  Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.

That is why we need Jesus.  In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice.  In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30).  We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders.  One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.

Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.

Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past.  Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.”  I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.”  No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”

A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession.  It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:

Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).

God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ.  It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.

Of course, this requires work.  We no longer have an excuse to run from God.  We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us.  In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship.  Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust.  This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.

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Giving the Invitation

george-whitefield-preaching

Joe LaGuardia’s new book, Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey, is scheduled to be released in late May.  As an anthology of articles and homilies from the Baptist Spirituality archives, the book encourages, inspires, and deepens a life of faith and our pilgrimage with God.  This article, originally released in 2013, is included in the book.  

By Joe LaGuardia

Like so many churches in the South, the church I pastor, Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, still has a time of invitation after the sermon every Sunday.  It consists of an altar call or a request for worshipers to reflect on the message, along with a moving hymn to stir the heart.

Although this might seem a bit antiquated—a hold-over from a simpler, revivalist tradition of yesteryear—it still holds a meaningful place in the midst of our worship to God.  It is, at its basic level, a time to respond to God and reflect on a personal challenge for the week ahead.

I realized long ago that our church is too small to give an altar call every week.  I’m not one of those preachers who make the pianist play the hymn repeatedly until someone comes forward, so over the years I’ve had to expand my invitation to include other calls of response.  I now urge my parishioners to take the initiative to respond to God on their own terms.

The shift in emphasis from invitation to initiative is a reminder that there are many ways to respond to God aside from an altar call, decision for baptism, and prayer with the preacher.  In fact, all of us—no matter where we are in our faith—should realize that an invitation is a time to follow God’s leading.  God is in the business of calling us to action, obedience, surrender, and mission.  We are obligated to respond if we claim to believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

One way we can respond is by committing to a life of praise and song.  I don’t envy the Christian who only hears or sings praises to God for a few hours a week.  Ours is to be a life of song, and we can sing and recite hymns or choruses wherever we are, no matter the day or the hour.  The Bible is full of praises that intend to respond to God: “How good it is to invite us to respond to God,” Psalm 147 states, “for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.”

Another response is to do something for the Lord each and every week.  This action can be as simple as writing a card to a friend in need or a church member who is struggling.  It can be something more demanding, such as “paying it forward” by purchasing a stranger’s groceries at the store.

You may also choose to do something based on the sermon.  I’m sure your preacher’s messages include at least one challenge for the week ahead.  When your pastor gives a challenge or sermon application that is fitting, write it down so you don’t forget.  Consider posting or tweeting your commitment on social media so that people can hold you accountable.

A final way to respond to God is to live a “life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).  I realize that people are called to do different things in life: one is called to be a teacher while another is called to be a missionary.  All of us, however, are included within the calling we are all obligated to fulfill—namely, to practice the Great Commission and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  This requires holy integrity and obedience to God’s empowering Spirit, to walk in righteousness, and to advocate for justice and grace.

Some churches have done away with the traditional invitation, and more than one church has put hymns such as “I Surrender All” aside.  But all of us, whether in a church with revivalist leanings, contemporary praise songs or formal liturgies, bear the weight of responding to a God who calls, seeks, knocks, and commissions with relentless passion.